Monday, August 25, 2014

The following article was written by Winthrop Professor Hans Lambers, Immediate Past Head of the School of Plant Biology as the Last Word for UniNews. This article was blocked by the Vice Chancellor's political advisor from appearing in UniNews. The article entitled "Will UWA make it in the top 50 by 2050?" puts forward a number of issues that relate to the decisions by the university that impact both students and academics within UWA.

Will UWA make it in the Top 50 by 2050?
By Winthrop Professor Hans Lambers

Just a few years ago, UWA was delighted when a dream came true: to get into the Top 100 by UWA’s centenary on the Academic Ranking of World Universities.  A longer-term aim was to make it in the Top 50 by 2050 on whatever the appropriate measure might be by then.  I want to first analyse what allowed us to make it in the Top 100 of the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU:, and then return to the title of my Last Word.  

The ARWU website states: “ARWU considers every university that has any Nobel Laureates, Fields Medalists, Highly Cited Researchers, or papers published in Nature or Science. In addition, universities with significant amount of papers indexed by Science Citation Index-Expanded and Social Science Citation Index are also included.”  Given the weighting of Nobel Laureates, it is obvious why UWA shot up in the ranking when Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won their Nobel Prize, since Barry was a staff member at the time, and a previous student of UWA.  UWA had a fair number of Highly Cited Researchers, and brought in significantly more over the past decade, allowing an increase in our score from 17.9 (2008) to 25.8 (2012).  In addition, our score for publications in Nature and Science increased over that period (10.5 to 13.3), and so has the score for number of indexed papers (41.2 to 44.2).  Together, this allowed for our position in the Top 100 since 2012. 

Clearly, moving into the Top 100 did not simply “happen”, but was the result of a clear strategy underpinned by a budget.  Highly Cited Researchers were actively recruited, assisted by the Vice Chancellor’s Discretionary Fund.  Likewise, it was relatively easy to bring in Highly Cited Laureate Fellows, because the component of their salary that was not covered by the Australian Research Council came “off the top”.  All of that has changed, and that salary component now has to be covered by the School hosting a Laureate Fellow who is already on their staff.  That is a significant financial burden, because that staff member no longer significantly contributes to undergraduate teaching.  However, it is disastrous if a Laureate Fellow is recruited from outside UWA.  How is a School supposed to find a Level E salary?  Some support is available from higher up in the hierarchy, but the point remains that it is seriously difficult for a School to attract a Laureate Fellow from outside if even a fraction of a Level E salary has to be covered.  Don’t we want to stay in the Top 100?

Our website claims that UWA “is committed to enrolling and graduating the highest quality students.”  That sounds great, but is it still true?  Our strongest postgraduate students are those that win an International Postgraduate Scholarship (IPRS).  They contribute significantly to our research output, our international standing and ARWU ranking.   Schools used to receive funding for these top students while they were enrolled.  The new funding model has wiped that funding off the Schools’ budgets, and support for the research for these top students must come from elsewhere.  Are we really serious about enrolling the highest quality students?

UWA appears to be keen appointing an ever-expanding cohort of senior administrators, thus decreasing the funding for Schools that are actually generating the university’s income through their academic activities.  If a School is to make an appointment, it wants to make sure it is academically sound as well as financially viable.  Reducing funding for Schools kills the goose that lays the golden eggs.  Where are the business cases to justify appointments that reduce the funding at School level to a mere trickle? 

If we seek to get into the Top 50 in 2050, or stay in the Top 100 over the next five years, UWA needs a budget that supports a solid strategy.  With so many well-funded universities around the globe competing for the Top 100, it will be easy to slip out of the Top.  It will be tough to stay in the Top 100 and move upwards, but it can be done, if UWA makes the right decisions.

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